Thinking in an Emergency

ElaineScarry, best known for her meditation on The Body in Pain, here offers a slim yet gravid essay that occupies acurious nexus.  It is partly a work ofsociological analysis, on the order of Bowling Alone.  It is partly an appeal to the power ofphilosophy and rationality, akin to Alain de Botton’s The Consolations ofPhilosophy.  It is partly a work ofspeculative neuroscience examing our thought processes, such as SusanBlackmore’s The Meme Machine.  Itis partly a controlled rant (pardon the oxymoron) that seeks to speak truth andjustice to power, along the lines of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.  And it is partly a dry-as-dust work from somefederal agency like the Congressional Government Accountability Office,documenting with reams of precise statistics why we should all eat morevegetables.  Luckily for the reader, theother four passionate actors in the troupe sit heavily upon this bluenoselecturer and only let him get in an intermittent squeak or three.

Thinking in an Emergency is the first volume inAmnesty International’s “Global Ethics Series,” and as such it seeksto address “transnational moral dilemmas” in a positive way.  Scarry’s topic is how a citizenry and theindividuals that consititute a nation act in an crisis situation, and why weseem inclined nowadays to live in a perpetual state of panic, where we abandonall rationality, debate and deliberation, allowing all-powerful rulers to takethe reins of government out of our hands.  

Scarrybegins by describing the six decades of nuclear madness—still persisting today,though hidden and ignored—which is best described by the familiar phrase”Mutually Assured Destruction.” She adds in recent undeclared wars and government-condoned tortureprograms to limn an off-the-rails domestic and foreign policy, where wild-eyedflailing about is substituted for discourse and seasoned response.  

Havingpainted such a grim picture, she next examines four instititutions that rely,during similar crisis situations, on engrained training and cooperation tosucceed.  The first practice is thedissemination and practice of CPR techniques. The second is mutual-aid contracts among rural Canadians.  The third is the Swiss program of falloutshelters for all.  And the finaladmirable model is the USA’s oft-bypassed Constitutional mechanisms fordeclaring war.

Scarry’sargument is that forethought and the inculcation of virtues form the onlybulwark against panic when disaster strikes. She hails forth the teachings of such philosophical savants asAristotle, Montaigne and Locke to bolster her case for every citizen becomingforearmed, and ready to act out of savvy habit. On page 90, she almost explicitly invokes Malcolm Gladwell’s”10,000-hour rule” from Outliers, which maintained that in anyfield of endeavor it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become avirtuoso.  In essence, what Scarry isasking is for each of us to devote that ten thousand hours—or a reasonablefraction thereof—to becoming virtuoso citizens.

Althoughall of Scarry’s preceptors are Westerners, it seems to me that she isessentially describing a Buddhist regimen. The Eightfold Path and its ladder of right understanding and rightintentions leading to right action seems identical to Scarry’s plan.  If followed, we could all be like the Zenmonk who famously kept his head during an earthquake and rescued all his peers,only to nervously refresh himself afterward by drinking a jar of pure soy saucein a moment of post-quake distractedness. The job would get done, but we would still be humanly fallible.


The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.